Q&A with Kevin Budelmann

This Q&A is part of “Defining the Studio of 2015,” an initiative by AIGA and Adobe that seeks the insights of visionary design thought leaders who are poised for the future. In this series, these leaders share an inside look at their plans, predictions and aspirations for the studio of 2015 and beyond.

To get us started, tell us a bit about your studio and your role in it.

I am one of the two owners of Peopledesign, a small studio based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I’m the president and Yang Kim is the creative director. We started Peopledesign in 1997, during the ramp-up to the internet becoming a commercialized entity. Both of us went to college at Carnegie Mellon University, where we lived amongst a lot of engineers. Technology was part of our origin, and we took advantage of that as we grew. We’ve been in business for 17 years now, and in that time I would say that we’ve gone from a graphic design and interaction design studio to a studio that also increasingly engages in business strategy.

What are some of the challenges—and opportunities—that you think are most critical to address in 2015 and beyond?

Larry Keeley from Doblin in Chicago talks a lot about design strategy, and there’s one thing in particular I remember him saying at a conference years ago: In some respects, it’s a huge win when you walk into a Target and see row after row of really well-designed toothbrushes. It’s a win for design. It’s a win for users, for styling and for ergonomics. And it’s a win for the consumer. The challenge is that this “win” may not always be great news for designers, especially designers in the U.S. Most of those toothbrushes were probably designed in Korea or some other place—for not a lot of money.

This issue takes on even more importance with the popularity and market success of Apple. Everybody wants to talk about design, so much so that the distinction between those who really know something about design and those who simply want to talk about it becomes more and more confused.

Who owns the conversation of design? And what role should designers play going forward? Are we on the receiving end? Are we driving the bus or are we just passengers? I think this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. And design firms must figure out how to have a seat at the table.

How will you demonstrate the value of what you do to clients (or potential clients) going forward? How will you present yourselves the world?

We have to be smarter. I think we are smarter than some alternatives, but we have to convince clients this is the case. I tell our team all the time that nearly everybody in our studio could exist as a freelancer. They’re very talented, smart and savvy people. But if we believe, as a group, that we are greater than the sum of our parts, our clients will believe that, too. If not, we might as well just throw in the towel.

We learned this through experience. When you start a studio, early on you imagine that you’re the smartest, most talented and most creative person and you’re going to immediately have all these followers. That sounds egotistical, but it’s true. I think we quickly learned that the best thing we could ever do is hire people that are smarter than we are.

Why did you change the name of your firm? How does the name change reflect the way that you’re positioning yourselves for the future?

Ten years after we started our company, we changed our name from BBK Studio, named after the three founding principals, to Peopledesign. We did this for two reasons. One, to be much more focused on user centeredness, given its importance and how it will continue to play out in business and technology. Two, because we realized that having a multidisciplinary team of really smart individuals was a critical factor in our longevity.

In terms of business development, what new or additional steps is your studio planning on taking in order to position for the future?

We are forever experimenting. As a relatively well-known firm, in the not-too-distant past we relied on conventional word-of-mouth mechanisms. When we first opened the studio, there was a very short list of design awards, and we spent the first part of our career earning a place in publications, judging design competitions and doing lectures. Now there’s a huge glut of competitions and, increasingly, clients don’t know the difference.

In 2015 and beyond, I think we need to actively find other ways to describe and promote what we do. We’re looking at automated marketing and content marketing strategies, which is not unlike what some of our clients do. And we’re using sales tools like Salesforce.com. There’s a rich history of selling strategies, but I don’t think many design firms have moved in that direction.

What role will technology play in your studio in 2015 and beyond?

It’s been said that technology is anything that’s been invented in your lifetime. In particular, screen-based media and embedded technology are going to change what a lot of companies can do in terms of their products and services. To the extent that design firms can help their clients better position themselves and take advantage of these possibilities, they will remain valuable.

For us, the biggest challenge has to do with individual staff members’ attitude toward technology. Attitude becomes a bit like a litmus test, I think. There are some people who actually enjoy learning a new technology, so they dabble in different areas and try to incorporate their newfound skills into their work. That isn’t to say that we don’t focus on staff training, but you can’t entirely spoon-feed people these kinds of things. In the near future, one must be conversant in many different technologies and tools. As a firm, we’ve committed ourselves to remaining relevant on that front.

How might your team structure change over the next few years?

When we started the company, like a lot of design firms, we were using a practitioner or mentor-and-apprentice model—a few senior designers plus some less experienced designers that augmented the group. To some degree, that still exists. However, today we’re deliberately hiring people with more varied backgrounds.

It used to be that everybody had an undergraduate design degree, with the possible exception of administrative staff. Now some of us have gone on to earn innovation strategy graduate degrees. Some M.B.A.s have pursued design on their own or through multifaceted degree programs. We’re not a big team, so everybody wears a lot of hats. While most people on our team do more than one thing, the number of things that we do has increased dramatically. Going forward, we’ll be actively seeking those alternate perspectives so Peopledesign has a more holistic offer.

Anything else you’d like to share?

AIGA just turned 100, right?


The profession of design as we know it was born out of the industrial era. It was built around humanizing and styling products that were made for mass production. I think that anyone can see that we’re now on the brink of an entirely different era. There are changes in the way that mass production will work in the future. And I think the design profession has to change right along with it.

That’s a challenge, because some designers don’t want things to change and others want to embrace change. There’s not even any agreement as to what the changes really mean, or what it will mean to be a designer in the future. That’s exciting, and a little scary, but somewhere between the ever-present desire to do really great work and send my kids to college, we’re trying to forge ahead.